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OPINION: It’s high time for corporate execs to do more for disabled staff

Friday, 3 December 2021 15:00 GMT

Rui Brito, a worker with a disability who lost his arm in a machinery accident more than 30 years ago, works at the office amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Porto, Portugal, July 20, 2021. Picture taken July 20, 2021. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is critical for corporate executives to listen to the disability community and those who advocate for workforce inclusivity and equality.

Kelly Buckland is the Former Executive Director of the National Council on Independent Living and Michael Neidorff is the Chairman and CEO of Centene.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the systemic inequities that have long plagued our country’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. This has been particularly true for workers with disabilities, many of whom are confronting new challenges that are making it difficult to remain in the workforce.

Today, on the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, American business leaders have a responsibility to renew and strengthen their commitments to workforce equity and inclusion and provide all employees with the resources they need to work and build successful, fulfilling careers.

Workers with disabilities are essential to our economy, comprising the nation’s third-largest labor market segment. But while most are willing to work, the employment rate for this group has dropped over the past year as the pandemic has taken a disproportionately higher toll on their day-to-day lives.

Adults with certain disabilities, for instance, are more likely to have an underlying medical condition that may put them at a higher risk of severe illness from the virus, making it challenging to return to physical workplaces — even among those who are vaccinated.

When public transit was restricted in many cities, some people with disabilities found themselves with very limited access to reliable transportation. And there is an unquantifiable emotional weight still faced by many of these workers — an issue long before COVID-19 — that forces individuals to hide their disabilities while in the office.

For those with disabilities, the consequences of the pandemic have been painfully clear. In the months following the pandemic’s onset, one in five workers with disabilities had lost their employment — compared with one in seven among the general population. And a survey from the National Organization on Disability found that the road back to work may prove to be just as difficult, with many major businesses and organizations still inadequately prepared to accommodate those with disabilities.

We cannot afford to let the pandemic stem the progress made since the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which has helped bring millions of people into the workforce over the past three decades. It has also strengthened businesses and our nation’s economy as a whole; according to a 2018 study, businesses that actively recruit people with disabilities outperform businesses that choose not to do so.

Now, as businesses consider how to spur an economic recovery, it is incumbent upon corporate leaders to seize on this moment and take the lead in not only bringing those with disabilities back into the fold but to create environments in which they can thrive and grow their careers. We will only usher in a more equitable workforce if these initiatives flow directly from the C-suite and are made a top business priority for an organization.

To achieve these objectives, it is critical for corporate executives to listen to the disability community and those who advocate for workforce inclusivity and equality. The Centene National Disability Advisory Council (CNDAC), comprised of disability advocacy leaders such as the Starkloff Disability Institute, is helping us tear down institutional barriers that hinder professional success and career development for workers with disabilities. And our Employee Inclusion Groups provide workers with spaces to voice their own experiences and allow them to play a role in building more diverse teams throughout our company.

During many of these conversations, certain themes may ring louder than others, and business leaders have a responsibility to pay close attention and take action in response. For instance, individuals with disabilities will often point to the need to make workspaces more accessible — anything from building a new wheelchair ramp to implementing new technologies. These should never be too much ask for.

According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), more than 50 percent of accessibility accommodations cost absolutely nothing to make, and tax incentives are available to help employers cover the costs of other modifications.

We can no longer allow diversity and inclusion to remain buzzwords thrown around at shareholder and board meetings. The pandemic has made it all too clear that individuals with disabilities still face numerous career barriers despite the progress of the past 30 years.

Now is the moment for corporate America to recommit itself to eradicating these inequities, and it is imperative that we develop a more vibrant workforce and resilient economy. Only together can we guarantee that all Americans have an equal opportunity to succeed.

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